MYSTERIOUS LANGUAGE OF MARDI GRAS INDIANS
Musical Except, "I Know You Mardi Gras" by Bo Dollis and the Wild Magnolias
Mardi Gras is difficult for those outside of New Orleans' unique culture to understand. Its traditions come from New Orleans' colonial history and secret societies. Modern events, like the Zulu parade, satirize the city's racist history. Zulu was organized by African-Americans in 1909 to mock the stereotypes Whites held toward Blacks. Still today, members of the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club masquerade in black-face makeup and throw coconuts from floats on Fat Tuesday. This is just one in a long series of puzzling events a tourist may experience during the Mardi Gras season in New Orleans.
One cultural phenomenon that is mysterious even to New Orleans locals, and unknown to most outsiders, is the Mardi Gras Indians. The Black Indians have masqueraded at least as long as the Zulus, but their customs, and even much of their musical dialogue, has remained a mystery. The world outside of the Crescent City first heard the language of the Mardi Gras Indians when a popular vocal trio from New Orleans, The Dixie Cups, concluded a string of hits from their album "Chapel of Love" with "Iko Iko" in the spring of 1965. "Iko Iko" was described as "an old Mardi Gras chant that most New Orleans kids had heard all their lives." Sisters Rosa and Barbara Hawkins, and cousin Joan Marie Johnson, chanted the catchy verses during the recording of "Chapel of Love."
The song had actually been a local hit for "Sugar Boy" Crawford during New Orleans' Mardi Gras Carnival in 1954 as "Jock-A-Mo." Crawford commented, "'Jockamo-A-Mo' came from two songs that I used to hear the Mardi Gras Indians sing. When I was growing up I lived near the Battle Field where the Indians paraded on Mardi Gras Day."
This version by the Dixie Cups remains a commercial success to this day. It features percussion performed on metal chairs and a Coca-Cola bottle similar to the Indians' style. The complex rhythm has been part of the Mardi Gras Indians' heritage for well over 100 years.
Musical Except, "Iko Iko" by The Dixie Cups
Musical Except, "Hey Hey" by Bo Dollis and the Wild Magnolias
Musical Except, "Hu-Ta-Nay" by Donald Harrison, Jr. with Dr. John
While the exact meaning of the words is not known, the rhythyms of the Mardi Gras Indians come from Africa and the Caribbean. Slaves performed the elaborate African rhythms at weekly gatherings, a tradition that continued into the Twentieth Century at New Orleans' famous Congo Square. The origins of the chanted phrases, however, are not known. Phrases like "Jockomo-Fee-Nah-Ney" may have been defiant secret dialogue used to tell slave masters or chain gang bosses to "Go to Hell."
Musical Except, "Jockomo Jockomo" by Bo Dollis and Monk Boudreaux
Musical Except, "New Suit" by Bo Dollis and the Wild Magnolias
Musical Except, "Golden Crown" by Young Guardians of the Flame
"Masking Indian" literally means to masquerade as an Indian. Mardi Gras Indians wear elaborate costumes styled after the American Indians' Powwow regalia. New Orleans' Black Indians pay homage to the American Indians by sewing pictorials romanticizing the American Indians' way of life with beads, sequins and rhinestones. The Black Indians' costumes are further adorned with colorful feathers and exaggerated head dresses. A finished costume may take up to a year to complete, with numerous layers of pictorials that can be revealed one after the other, and may weigh well over 100 pounds. The Black Indians' regalia is an important part of the symbolic competition between the New Orleans tribes.
Musical Except, "Golden Crown" by Bo Dollis and the Wild Magnolias
Musical Except, "Hoon Na Day" by Monk Boudreaux and the Golden Eagles
The tradition of the Black Indians paying homage to the Native American Indians probably dates back well into the Nineteenth Century. American Indians were commonly seen trading goods with Europeans along the Mississippi River near New Orleans' slave markets. Escaped slaves often found refuge with tribes such as the Choctaw in southern Louisiana. Many slaves were converted to Catholicism by the French and Spanish in Louisiana. It was customary to celebrate Mardi Gras with processions and feasts before the period of Lent. The Black Indians were probably called Mardi Gras Indians as they developed traditions of parading in elaborate feathered costumes somewhat similar to those worn in the Caribbean carnivals. Traditions of the New Orleans Mardi Gras Indians are usually handed down within families or to relatives in neighborhood communities. Mardi Gras Indian tribes' names often refer to Native American groups or to historic New Orleans' segregated Black neighborhoods.
Musical Except, "Pass It On" by Young Guardians of the Flame
Musical Except, "Pass It On" by Bo Dollis and the Wild Magnolias
Musical Except, "Yella Pocahontas" by Champion Jack Dupree, Super Sunday Showdown
There are more than thirty known Mardi Gras Indian tribes in New Orleans. The most historic, like Yellow Pocahontas and Creole Wild West, are legendary in New Orleans lore. Some believe that Creole Wild West was established soon after Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show toured to New Orleans in the 1880s. Each tribe is lead by a "Big Chief" and its ranks usually include a "Flag Boy," "Spy Boy," and "Wild Man." Some of New Orleans' biggest names in music have led Indian groups. Donald Harrison has been Big Chief of Creole Wild West, Cherokee Braves, White Eagles and Guardians of the Flame. Champion Jack Dupree was the "Spy Boy" for Yellow Pocahontas in the 1920s.
Recording history was made in 1976 when the Neville Brothers, including Art Neville and his band The Meters, decided to record their uncle George Landry, also known as Big Chief Jolly, and his Mardi Gras Indian tribe, The Wild Tchoupitoulas.
Musical Except, "Hey Mama" by The Wild Tchoupitoulas, The Wild Tchoupitoulas
Musical Except, "Mardi Gras Day" by Dr. John
Like most traditional groups in New Orleans, the Mardi Gras Indians celebrate by parading. Neighborhood processions are common by the Black Indians on Mardi Gras Day. But the large gatherings of Mardi Gras Indians actually occur on "Super Sunday," the Sunday nearest St. Joseph's Day, March 19th. The connection to this date is unknown, but St. Joseph's Day represents benevolence to New Orleans' historic population of poor Italian immigrants and may have similar meaning to the Black Indians.
Musical Except, "Let's Go Get 'Em" by Flaming Arrows
Musical Except, "Shoo-Fly" by Bo Dollis and the Wild Magnolias
The Indians are most known for their complex and hypnotic percussion played on tambourines as they parade, but groups like the Flaming Arrows and Young Keepers of the Flame are combining traditional Second Line Jazz and modern influences such as Hip-Hop. As the Indians began to record in the 1970s, now-legendary Chiefs, such as Bo Dollis of the Wild Magnolias and Monk Boudreaux of the Golden Eagles, infused other African-American styles, like funk and brass band music, as they recorded with musicians like Willie Tee and the ReBirth Brass Band.
Musical Except, "Li'l Liza Jane" by Flaming Arrows
Musical Except, "Handa Wanda" by Bo Dollis and the Wild Magnolias
Musical Except, "Chong Chong" by Young Guardians of the Flame
The Mardi Gras Indians are inevitably connected with New Orleans' histories of slavery, America's historic wars -- the Civil War and Battle of New Orleans -- and the Great Depression, and more modern events that impacted New Orleans' predominant African-American population, like the Civil Rights Movement and Vietnam War. The impoverished conditions in many New Orleans' neighborhoods led the bands of Black Indians to gang violence through the middle of the Twentieth century. Today, many of the gangs still consider themselves rivals, but they settle their differences with the needle and thread, as each make their own costumes for parading, and with their chants that compete for the crowd's attention on Super Sunday.
Musical Except, "(Meet the Boys on the) Battlefront" by Bo Dollis and the Wild Magnolias
Musical Except, "Junko Partner" by Anders Osbourne and Monk Boudreaux
New Orleans benefits from a Billion dollars of new money in its economy -- the equivalent of four Super Bowls -- each year during Carnival. Mardi Gras goers from all over the nation and the world invade the city in the days before Fat Tuesday and leave their small fortunes behind almost overnight, and yet many of New Orleans' African-American populations remain among the poorest in the nation. This leaves the Mardi Gras Indians to deal with subjects common in Louisiana, such as imprisonment in the notorious Angola Penitentiary, as well as drug addiction and the premature deaths of young Black men.
Musical Except, "Angola Bound" by Bo Dollis and the Wild Magnolias
Musical Except, "Brother John" by The Wild Tchoupitoulas
Musical Except, "Indian Red" by Young Guardians of the Flame
"Indian Red" is a traditional chant considered sacred to most Mardi Gras Indian groups. In this version, Cara Harrison of the Young Guardians of the Flame, presents "Indian Red" in the form of a funeral dirge in Ghana, illustrating the connection of the Black Indians with their African roots, as well as the African connection to Black spirituals in the southern United States.
Musical Except, "Indian Red" by Young Guardians of the Flame
For more information on the Mardi Gras Indians, please visit www.HoustonCulture.org/indians. You will also find links to more information on St. Joseph's Day, Angola State Penitentiary and a photo essay following this year's Super Sunday event. A transcript of this program can be obtained from the Houston Institute for Culture by sending an e-mail to info@HoustonCulture.org.
Transcript Copyright © 2003, by Mark D. Lacy